When you get a chance and if you are interested I invite you to google “tree climbing goats of Morocco”. I once stumbled across this and was really kind of mesmerized. At first you might think that the pictures of these goats perched on extremely small branches of trees are doctored, I know I did, but they are not. If you go to YouTube you will see videos of these goats climbing up into the trees, moving around and balancing on the branches and then scampering down. The story is that there is a berry that these trees produce that the goats crave and over time they have adapted and developed the ability to climb the trees in order to get at the berries. That being understood, the image of all these goats standing on branches in a tree is surreal – two very ordinary things (goats and trees) brought together in a totally unexpected way. It makes you do a double-take when you see it and even question your perception.
The parables of our Lord operate in a similar way I believe. Our Lord takes common, everyday realities that we are all familiar with (maybe even take for granted) and then puts a spin on them that leaves the listener doing a mental double-take and re-evaluating ones perception of things. Similar to seeing goats perched in a tree. Take for example this Sunday’s parable (Mt. 20:1-16). We can easily imagine the landowner and the laborers. We understand what work is and what it means to give someone a fair wage for a fair day’s work. But then there is this “spin” at the end. Those laborers who worked only one hour get paid the same amount as those who put in a full day’s work. And we are left with the response of the landowner, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
What is helpful to realize is that this parable is not about us. It is about God. God’s justice is his mercy. In Isaiah we hear God proclaim, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways … As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Is. 55:6-9).
In this parable our Lord is not giving us a lesson on social justice nor is he presenting us with an image of the just boss. Rather, he presents us with an absolutely exceptional person, who treats those under him beyond the bounds of any legalistic rules. The parable shows us how the Father acts – his kindness, his magnanimousness, and his mercy, which are as far from the human way of thinking as heaven is from earth.
It is very easy to be cynical about all this, to roll one’s eyes at the Christian talk of mercy. The cynic easily says, “Let’s get real; enough of this fairy-tale talk!” Cynicism is indeed one of the besetting sins of our age which often dismissively equates mercy with naivety but cynicism is often really just a cover for fear. The Christian mystery is not a puzzle to be solved and then set aside, allowing a sense of accomplishment and superiority for the cynic, rationalist and materialist. The Christian mystery is a mystery to be lived and as we live it we are then brought to greater understanding and greater hope and joy. And it takes courage and trust to live the mystery.
So Isaiah doesn’t say “Figure it out!” rather he says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.” Then he gets really personal, “…scoundrel, wicked … you forsake your way, your thoughts … turn to the Lord for mercy…” God owes us nothing except by his choice which is his mercy. Rather than trying to fit God into our sense of fairness it would be better for us to wonder on God’s mercy.
The parable is about God and how his justice is his mercy and it teaches us that when we labor for him, as we are each called to do in our own way and according to our current season in life, then we will know the great reward of his mercy. It is a great reward. God is unjust with no one and neither is he senseless. God does not give according to some abstract notion of equity, rather he gives to each of his children according to his or her need. God’s justice is his mercy.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found…” Encounter God and his mercy. Live the mystery and know the life and the generous mercy that overcomes all the cynicism and sad logic of our world.
“…am I not free to do as I wish … Are you envious because I am generous?”
Prior to the gospel passage we just heard proclaimed (Jn. 3:13-17), we are told that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night”. Nicodemus is a religious leader of his day and therefore a powerful and respected man in his society. Even though Nicodemus can recognize and acknowledge that Jesus is a “teacher come from God” he still does not want to be seen visiting this strange new teacher who had just run out the money-changers from the temple (Jn. 2:13-22). Nicodemus is fearful for his stature and his reputation in the society of his day. Even though something about Jesus attracts him, Nicodemus’ faith is darkened by fear so it is telling on many levels that he comes to our Lord “by night”.
Fear always darkens our lives. Fear always darkens faith and fear always seeks to overshadow hope. The exaltation of the Holy Cross, even in the stark violence of the sacrifice offered, stands in witness against fear in all its forms. The cross banishes the darkness of fear precisely because it reveals the love of the Father. A love so amazing that the Father permits the sacrifice of the Son in order to satisfy the demand of justice! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
It is in and through the triumph of the Cross and Resurrection that Christians can say “no” to the sad logic of violence, oppression and fear. In the exaltation of the Cross, we can say that peace, reconciliation and forgiveness are always possible. In some ways it seems counter-intuitive that a means of violent execution becomes the sign of hope; but this is God’s logic – a logic that overcomes all the supposed logic and understanding of our world.
In my prayer this week, my thoughts have kept returning to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, who are facing the very real threat of martyrdom for their faith in Christ. Many have already been martyred, some through very violent and barbaric acts. We often think of the age of the martyrs as a period of early Christian history but in the twentieth century alone more Christian were killed for their faith than at any other time in history. Sadly, the trend seems to be continuing in this century. These men and women facing the full onslaught of violence witness the wisdom and hope that can only come through embracing the cross of Christ!
When I was in seminary I received some advice on preaching that has remained with me to this day. I was told that when I preach I should not worry about having to review all of salvation history in one homily rather I should concern myself simply with saying something that invites people to prayer. So, I will end this homily with a direct invitation to prayer: sometime on this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross go before a crucifix whether it is here in the church, whether at home, whether an image you pull up on the internet, whether in your mind’s eye. Place yourself before the cross, imagine Christ looking on you with love and reflect on the love revealed on the cross, receive that love and allow it to banish any fears that you might be carrying in your life. The logic of the cross, God’s logic, overcomes all the fears and sad divisions and violence of our world. And, in a special way, pray for our brothers and sisters who are facing persecution and death for their love of Christ.
The Catholic writer and speaker Fr. Robert Barron begins a session in one of his video series by stating, “You are not necessary! Neither you nor I are necessary!” I have often thought that this would make for an ironic hallmark card. On the front cover – “You are not necessary!” – and inside – “Have a nice day!” But Fr. Barron is not being flippant in this; rather he is stating an important spiritual truth. None of us, none of creation, everything that we see and discover around us – none of it is necessary. All of it continually flows from God. God alone is the one necessary; everything else from the largest galaxy to most finite speck of dust is dependent upon God and therefore not necessary.
Whoa … this is heavy and it can quickly weigh heavy on one’s mind and life. If all is dependent upon God then what happens if I really, really make him mad? Does he need to be appeased? Do I need to do absolutely correct every little thing that I think God wants done? God seems then to be opposed to my thriving. God, who alone is necessary, almost seems to be in competition with my freedom.
This would be valid (Fr. Barron continues) were it not for one thing; “God is love,” writes St. John. God is not the biggest unnecessary thing among other unnecessary things. God is not the biggest part of creation among other parts of creation. If these were indeed the case then yes, God’s presence would necessarily hinder my freedom, my thriving. One limited thing always hinders, always limits another limited thing. God is not one thing among other things; God is the source of all things and this source is love! The presence of God in a person’s life does not hinder one’s freedom nor does the presence of God compete with one’s thriving because there is no competition!
The quicker we learn this truth the better for us and the more easily we begin to grasp God’s economics.
No one likes debt. I know that I don’t. We want to be free of debt. We work our whole lives to pay off debts – house, car, college – that we might one day be finally free of the weight of any debt. In God’s economics there is a debt that we all carry, it can never be paid off and instead of denying life it brings life. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 13:8-10) writes these words, “Brothers and sisters, owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” We are all bound by the debt of love for one another, love for the stranger and even love for the enemy. What a strange economics where debt brings life but when we live the debt of love then we, who are not necessary, participate in that which is necessary – the very nature and life of God!
There is another component to the strange economics of God. In this strange economics sacrifice displays wealth. In God’s economics a large house, the latest gadgets, big toys (things which are not bad in and of themselves) are not the primary signs of success and wealth. The surest sign of wealth in God’s economics is the willingness to sacrifice, the willingness to let go of self. Authentic sacrifice is rooted in love for the other. Parents sacrifice unreservedly for their children then, near the end of the journey of life, children have the opportunity to sacrifice unreservedly in love for their parents. It may not appear on the cover of Fortune 500 but, in God’s economics, the surest display of wealth is sacrifice.
The prophet Ezekiel tells us that we are to be watchmen (and women). Part of being a watchman or woman in our day and age is to set our lives by God’s economics. I think our Lord in today’s gospel (Mt. 18:15-20) invites us to carry this economics even into our dealings with one another in community and in family. In God’s strange economics we all carry the debt of love and sacrifice witnesses to wealth.